Pubdate: Tue, 25 Nov 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, Washington Post Foreign Service


Latest Victim Gunned Down in Front of Home

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Armando Rodriguez, at El Diario newspaper, 
was the top crime reporter in the deadliest city in Mexico. He had 
seen it all. But this was different. This was personal. Earlier this 
month, someone had hung the decapitated body of a local drug thug 
from a bridge on the airport road. Later the head appeared downtown 
at the Plaza of Journalists, wrapped in a plastic bag, carefully 
placed at the foot of a statue of a newsboy hawking papers.

Arturo Chacon, a reporter at El Norte, a competing daily in this 
tough border city, said the message was unmistakable: Journalists 
beware. "We knew it was bad, but we didn't know how bad," he said. "A 
week later I heard the shots, and then I heard they got Armando."

Rodriguez, 40, was killed Nov. 13 in front of his home by a single 
gunman. He was shot 10 times while warming up his car, directly in 
front of his 8-year-old daughter, as he was about to drive her to 
school in the morning. The slaying highlighted the growing danger to 
Mexican journalists reporting on the drug war, which has claimed more 
than 4,500 lives since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the army 
and police against the cartels and corrupt officials in early 2007. 
Most journalists continue to do their jobs but concede they are 
limiting their coverage of the carnage.

The attacks against journalists, which run from threats hissed on 
their cellphones to grenades lobbed into their newsrooms, form a new 
front in the larger war the drug cartels are waging against Mexico's 
social and government institutions. The resulting damage is 
undermining Mexican civil society as the rich, powerful cartels 
compete for control of smuggling routes into the United States, which 
is consuming all the cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana the 
cartels can deliver.

Mexican journalists say the threats may serve to muzzle their 
investigations and stop them from naming names. They also suggest 
that the cartels are attacking them to demonstrate their own power. 
For years, Mexican journalists often served as stenographers to the 
government. Now an increasingly independent press is being weakened 
by the drug war, just when society may need it most.

Since 2000, 28 journalists have been slain and eight others have 
disappeared and are assumed dead, according to Ricardo Gonzalez of 
the group Article 19, which works to protect freedom of expression in 
Mexico, now the most dangerous country in Latin America in which to 
be a journalist. Gonzalez said, "Journalists are now included among 
the casualties of this war."

Five reporters have been killed this year. "The border is now a 
terrifying place to be a journalist, and Juarez is ground zero," said 
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The extreme violence is fueled by both the crackdown on traffickers 
by the Calderon administration and a power struggle between two 
competing cartels, one based in Juarez, the other in Culiacan, bitter 
enemies engaged in a mafia bloodbath. The United States has pledged 
$400 million to help Calderon fight the cartels.

A week ago, two grenades exploded outside the offices of El Debate 
newspaper in Culiacan. No one was injured. "I don't know if they were 
narcos or if this was an act of revenge or just some jokers. But we 
think it was a message, a message for all media and the government," 
said Lucia Mimiaga, editorial director at El Debate. Several 
newspapers have been attacked by men spraying bullets from machine 
guns in the past two years.

Editors at many newspapers and television stations now say they no 
longer deeply investigate the cartels or attempt to plot the 
intersecting lines of corruption and cash between the drug 
traffickers and their partners in government, business and law 
enforcement. News directors insist that organized crime in Mexico now 
employs all the tools of terrorism -- violence, threats, 
sophisticated use of media -- to create an atmosphere of fear and impunity.

"I am the first to recognize that this situation is intolerable," 
Chihuahua state Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez said in a 
statement promising to find Rodriguez's killer. Yet the police have 
arrested no suspects, and none of the journalists interviewed here 
expect the case to be solved. Rodriguez was not robbed. His editor 
calls the killing "an assassination."

Reporters along the border say they are routinely threatened in phone 
calls, e-mails and on Internet comment boards. Many times, the 
journalists say, they know who is calling but dare not report the 
warnings to authorities for fear their complaints will be passed to 
cartel enforcers, who include former and current military and police 
officers. Many say their families beg them to find other work, or 
cover sports, business or society news.

Ciudad Juarez, a major border crossing crowded with Burger Kings and 
rough cantinas, is a gritty industrial city of 1.5 million people 
across the Rio Grande from El Paso. There have been 1,300 homicides 
in Juarez this year, including the deaths of more than 60 police 
officers. Thirty people were slain in Juarez just last week, many in 
daylight hours, in gangland-style executions. On Friday, 10 people 
were killed, including a triple homicide. On Saturday, an 
intensive-care nurse from El Paso was killed with a friend while 
traveling to Juarez to attend the funeral of her sister, who was also 
slain last week.

The killings can be spectacularly gruesome. A week ago in Juarez, a 
bullet-riddled body was found stuffed upside down in a large pot used 
to cook pork, with the legs sticking out. Recently another body 
appeared in front of a central police station, tied to a fence. The 
body was put there as children arrived for school across the street.

Several reporters have fled Juarez. Jorge Luis Aguirre, the owner of 
a popular Juarez news Web site called La Polaka, told reporters he 
was threatened by phone while on his way to Rodriguez's funeral. He 
gathered his family and raced to the United States. A correspondent 
for the Mexico City-based Reforma newspaper also left the city. A 
reporter for El Diario crossed the border after being threatened and 
is seeking political asylum in El Paso after repeated threats.

In Juarez, where a journalist might earn about $200 a week, the 
newspapers have removed bylines as a security measure. Photographers 
wear Kevlar vests. Reporters have been ordered by their editors not 
to arrive at crime scenes before the police, and when they do go, 
they are told to arrive in groups, along with their competitors. 
Police routinely tell reporters to stay away entirely from certain 
crime scenes.

"Right now we have no permanent police reporters," said Alfredo 
Quijano, editor of El Norte. Because of threats, his two crime 
reporters have been reassigned to other duties, he said. "We're in a 
tough spot. We're trapped between the police and the mafia -- and 
they are making a sandwich of the journalists," he said.

Quijano said he is limiting stories to the facts of a killing -- the 
who, what, where, when -- and forgoing questions about the why. "We 
print the basic news. What the government says. So we are not 
publishing everything we know, which is not good. But we are trying 
to survive," Quijano said.

Pedro Torres, editor at El Diario, was a close friend of Rodriguez, 
who was a godfather to his young son. As Torres was being 
interviewed, his cellphone rang with the news that a dentist down the 
street had just been kidnapped from his clinic by a gang of armed 
men. The information did not faze him.

"No longer do they just threaten us," Torres said. "Now they act."

Torres said he does not know who killed his ace reporter. "Many 
people assume he was killed by the narcos, but I am not so sure," he 
said. "He was killed by organized crime, I will say that. In Mexico, 
organized crime can mean the traffickers, the police, the government, 
or the people in the office buildings."

Some of the last stories Rodriguez wrote include reports about 
relatives of a top prosecutor in Chihuahua state, where Juarez is 
located. Rodriguez tied the relatives to the drug trade. The 
prosecutor is the same Patricia Gonzalez who vowed to find Rodriguez's killer.

In the dark world of drugs and corruption in Juarez, speculation 
about Rodriguez's death is rampant. Some of his fellow journalists 
wonder why he would have been killed by the drug traffickers, since 
he had covered them for so long. Why now?

"Perhaps it was not even personal," said Jesus Meza, president of the 
Association of Journalists in Ciudad Juarez. "Maybe it wasn't 
anything he wrote. He was a prominent journalist. He was known. So he 
was killed as a symbol. He was killed to create panic and paranoia. 
This is a technique of terrorism. They want everyone to be afraid, 
because that will destabilize the society."

The slain reporter's wife, Blanca Martinez, is preparing to leave 
Juarez with her children, perhaps to seek asylum in the United 
States. "When he wrote, he was an aggressive man. He wrote strong and 
hard," she said in an interview a week after her husband's death. She 
sat quietly in their study, dark circles of grief bruising her eyes, 
as her children played in the living room.

The two met when they both worked at a local TV station. She does not 
know who killed her husband. The couple recently spent several months 
in El Paso after previous threats by cellphone in January. She 
agreed, "Yes, maybe he was a symbol."

After a while Martinez said, "I just want to get out of this house." 
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